To trace impunity: Greg Egan’s Permutation City

There are readings of a book you can’t have on first reading. One of them is the reading in the light of later work. Another is being impressed how much it hasn’t dated.

I loved Permutation City when I first read it in 1994. It blew me away. It does everything science fiction ought to do—it has a story and characters and it’s so full of ideas you almost can’t stand up straight.

I still love it. I noticed all sorts of things about it on that first reading, but I didn’t then see it as part of Egan’s passionately engaged one-sided argument against God. In 1994 Egan hadn’t yet written Teranesia, or “Oceanic” or “Oracle“. The cumulative effect of these, with Permutation City‘s concluding denial of the possibility of deity, is not so much an assertion of “I don’t believe in this, and you can’t either” as of the intellectual equivalent of watching the world champion heavyweight blindfold shadow-boxer.

Permutation City takes a brilliant (but apparently impossible) SF-nal idea and works through it pretty much perfectly. This is the Dust Hypothesis, the idea that consciousness finds itself out of the dust of the universe and constructs its own universe where its existence makes sense. We first see this with an AI whose brain states are being calculated out of order, and eventually with entire infinite universes, human and alien.

The book begins in a 2050 that still plausibly feels like a possible 2050 we could reach from here—which is a major feat for a book written in 1994 and focused on computers. It palms the card of strong AI by putting us right into the point of view of a Copy, a simulated human. Because we’re reading, and we’re used to reading and empathising with a point of view, we don’t ever stop to consider whether or not Copies are conscious. We just accept it and right go on into the Dust Hypothesis. Along the way we see the 2050 world, the far future virtual world of Elysium, and the meticulously modeled autoverse.

The book has three central characters: Paul Durham, an obsessive who launches the virtual city out of the dust of the universe; Maria Deluca, programmer and autoverse junkie; and Peer, a Copy who persistently rewrites who he is. All of these, and the fourth point of view character, Thomas the guilty banker who sends his cloned self to hell, are among the best characters Egan has ever created. I don’t think I’ve ever put down an Egan book without saying “Wow, look at those sparkly ideas,” but this is the one I re-read to hang out with the characters.

Reflecting the Dust Hupothesis, the chapter titles, which recur and mark threads within the novel, are all whole or partial anagrams of the words “Permutation City”. So is the title of this piece, which comes from the poem that begins the book in which each line is such an anagram.

The last time I read this book, a couple of years ago, on what was probably my tenth or eleventh read, I got so caught up in the end that I missed my stop on the metro. About a year ago, my son Sasha read it and was enthralled. His top quality category of SF is what he calls “Books like Spin and Permutation City!” By that he means very well written SF with characters you can care about and plots that keep you on the edge of your seat, with ideas that expand the possibility of what you can think about. He wishes there were more books like that, and so do I.


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